Sun Ra and I share a birthday. We celebrated my 21st together at The Pausa Art House in Buffalo’s Allentown – or at least some local Ramen and women and one original disciple (I believe it may have been Marshall Allen) celebrated Sunny’s birthday while I sat with friends and family, contemplating a globular glass of Three Philosophers and the strange music unfolding and exploding before me.
The concert was thrilling, especially in a venue as small as my living room. The costumes – wizards capes and caps, glittering gowns, a pair of nylon fairy’s wings that night (a little looser than the real Arkestra’s outfits) – weren’t gimmicks, somehow. Pretty quickly I realized that the music, as intentionally challenging as it was, was really just about joy.
So when I saw the Sun Ra Arkestra, led today by Ra’s longtime sideman, “91 years young,” Marshall Allen, would be playing Edinburgh’s Summerhall, I knew I had to go. Clock my review in The Skinny here.
I got an early look at Dr. Dre’s Compton: A Soundtrack – and I was impressed (click for my review in The Skinny). The album was so good that most of us are probably ready to forget the long-awaited and now supposedly damned Detox – although I’m skeptical of Dre’s claim that Compton will be his final word.
Of course, Dee Barnes’ recent criticism of the movie that inspired this soundtrack, the Straight Outta Compton biopic Dre executive produced, accuses by virtue of proximity Compton the LP. I’m wary of any position that would demean, diminish, or demote high art because of its moral positions, outright or implied – this would drag down the vast majority of all the aesthetically excellent things mankind has made. I can’t speak to Straight Outta Compton‘s value as art or entertainment – I haven’t seen it yet – but Barnes deserves the mic she’s been denied for so long. Her criticism – that the film skips over Dre’s attack; that more broadly the film is a revisionist biography erasing the misogyny enshrined in N.W.A.’s expressions of outraged black masculinity, the horrible underside to their radical politics – also reflects on the album, in particular lending a frankly terrible weight to one of Eminem’s lines (in – yes, acknowledge it; we do wrong to deny it – a metrically excellent, powerfully performed verse), the line most reviewers (including myself) reference but cannot bring ourselves to type.
That the album is so worthy of study, then, itself recommends Dee Barnes’ reflection on the movie, the culture it (half-) portrays and the culture that made it. Her approach to the film has to be our approach to all good, dangerous art: we have to take it seriously.
Last week I chatted over the phone with a charming and expansive thereminist – the world’s leading theremin player, actually – Lydia Kavina, an incredible performer, a composer, and an advocate for the strange instrument her great uncle Lev Termen created in 1928 – as well as for the ideas behind it.
The interview is live now at The Skinny, so go ahead and click. Only one thing didn’t make it into the published version of our wide-ranging conversation (certainly my most interesting interview since I drank Americanos with The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau last February): the story of Pat Clancy, the first thereminist to introduce me to the instrument. I told Lydia this, making a broader point about the difficulty of learning the instrument. Clancy, I told her, picked up the theramin in his high school – he learned from an older player, but he couldn’t take lessons from an expert. I shared his story: that he more or less taught himself, learned the “Feather Theme” from Forrest Gump, and carried a love for the instrument into college, where we met.
“Excuse me, what was the name of this gentleman?” she asked me.
“Patrick. Pat Clancy.”
I told her I wasn’t sure if Pat still intended to advance his studies: he gave his theremin to Thomas Banchich, scholar of the ancient Greeks and enthusiast of many things wonderful and weird – like the theremin.
One understands why we had to cut this from the published interview – but Kavina was interested in Clancy’s tale; it’s part of the bigger story. I only hope she jotted down his name.